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Spain v Netherlands

A great game which could well turn into a tactical chess match. Jorge Vilda and his squad have had their well-documented differences but Spain’s coach is fortunate to have a pipeline of amazing talent at his disposal and the players now in New Zealand will be determined to make the very most of what could be their only chance to play at a World Cup.

Moreover, Spain’s 4-0 group stage defeat to Japan seems to have served as a useful wake-up call, encouraging them to reset and prompting Vilda to change his side around and become a little more adaptable within the parameters of the possession based passing style his country are incredibly loyal to.

Aitana Bonmatí excelled against Switzerland, but the Netherlands represent a much sterner test. Photograph: Shane Wenzlick/EPA

It’s wonderfully cohesive to watch and Aitana Bonmatí, Jennifer Hermosso and co have great dexterity on the ball but the Netherlands, who will be without the suspended Daniëlle van de Donk, will take encouragement from Spain’s tendency to miss too many of the chances they create.

While Vilda’s players can be wasteful at times, Andries Jonker is getting the very best out of his squad since succeeding Mark Parsons as the Netherlands coach. Significantly, the tactically versatile Jonker is unafraid to switch stylistic approaches, sometimes within games and that could work in his favour here.

With Vivianne Miedema out injured relatively little was expected of the Netherlands but Manchester City’s new midfielder Jill Roord has been the perhaps unlikely star of Jonker’s team.


Spain must also be mindful of Sherida Spitse’s set-piece ability, not to mention the threat posed by Lieke Martens. I played with Martens at Rosengård and I’ve been so pleased to see her re-awakening since Jonker’s arrival. Watching her drift between the lines, turn people and show what an assist machine she is I’ve thought “this is the Lieke I know.”

That represents bad news for Spain but with Alexia Putellas approaching full fitness, Vilda’s side can never be discounted.

Prediction Netherlands 2 Spain 1

Japan v Sweden

No one who has played against Japan ever underestimates them. You feel you have three players around you at all times and will inevitably experience “oh my God” moments when the synergy and synchronisation of their passing and movement creates amazing “wow” football. After winning the 2011 World Cup and finishing as runners up in 2015 Japan have been in transition but, perhaps due to the pandemic, its speed has not been fully appreciated.

Japan have been hugely impressive throughout the tournament and are favourites to reach the semi-finals. Photograph: Katelyn Mulcahy/FIFA/Getty Images

Moreover Futoshi Ikeda’s team are probably the tournament’s most adaptable. Japan’s evident comfort playing assorted styles, not to mention their 4-0 group stage dismantling of Spain, makes them slick, clinical, strategically smart opponents and, in the brilliant Hinata Miyazawa, they possesses the tournament’s leading scorer.

It is almost certainly no coincidence that Miyazawa was one of several current Japan players to have won the Under-20 World Cup in 2018. Indeed Japan have been making quite a habit of winning assorted junior age group tournaments.

And yet … Sweden knocked out USA in the Last 16 and I still believe they can reach another level as they possesses a lot of experience and big-game nous.

Peter Gerhardsson’s side were runners up at the last Olympics and know how to stay in games for the long haul. They are also the third tallest squad at this World Cup and have scored four headed goals, more than anyone else. The challenge for an XI well protected by their outstanding goalkeeper Zecira Musovic is to make that height advantage count, particularly at set pieces, where they are extremely clinical. Even so, winning would almost certainly necessitate Sweden being at their very best.

Prediction Japan 2 Sweden 1

Australia v France

Were this the final there would have been few complaints. With Australia great in transition and France counter pressing really well something is going to give but I suspect it could take extra time and penalties to produce a winner.

While Australia’s coach, Tony Gustavsson, fathoms out how to manage Sam Kerr’s ongoing return from injury – namely whether to use his star striker from the start or as an impact substitute – France’s Hervé Renard will doubtless be studying videos of the way in which Denmark’s Pernille Harder dropped deep and, despite finishing on the losing side in the Last 16, caused Australia all sorts of a problems. I wouldn’t be surprised to see France play a diamond version of their 4-4-2 formation involving Eugénie Le Sommer doing something similar.

Wendie Renard will be key for France in marshaling the returning Sam Kerr of Australia. Photograph: Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

I’ve played against Le Sommer several times and know precisely how difficult to mark she is, particularly when she drops deep and adopts a false nine or No 10 role. She’s such an intelligent forward and her runs drag defenders where they don’t want to go, often creating space for teammates.

Le Sommer is 34 now but she has scored a ridiculous number of senior international goals – 92 in 182 games – and possesses the muscle memory to know exactly where to be at precisely the right moment.

I feel France are enjoying playing for Renard, building relationships, finding rhythm and growing into the tournament. Kenza Dali’s playing very well in midfield and Wendie Renard marshals them superbly from centre-half while also representing a major set-piece threat.


They are strong and look determined to end their years of under-achievement at major tournaments but France are up against the tournament co-hosts and you wonder if this could be Australia’s moment.

Gustavsson’s side are very strong down the left where the relationship between Arsenal teammates Steph Catley and Caitlin Foord is benefiting them immensely. I’ve also been impressed with Mary Fowler. She’s got nifty footwork, great vision and a lovely weight and range of pass. Much may hinge on how Wendie Renard deals with Kerr’s aerial ability but only one thing seems certain: it’s going to be interesting.

Prediction 1-1 (aet) France to win on penalties.

England v Colombia

South American teams are often stereotyped as being all about aggression but that blanket label fails to do justice to the quality of a Colombia side whose fantastically enjoyable, mind-blowing group stage win against Germany was arguably the upset of the tournament to date.

Yes, Nelson Abadía’s team are physical but there’s a lot to admire about players being ultra competitive, not shirking one v one duels and looking to win individual battles all over the pitch.

So far in Australia, Colombia’s ferocious pressing tactics have forced Ireland to abandon a pre-tournament friendly against them after 20 minutes and thoroughly fazed a forward as experienced and streetwise as Germany’s Alexandra Popp.

To progress, England will have to earn the right to play their football and be a lot better in possession that they were against Nigeria. When it came to in-game management Sarina Wiegman didn’t really adapt to the problems posed by Randy Waldrum’s players and saw her team’s increasing frustration culminating in Lauren James’s red card.

In recent years England have been very disciplined on the pitch, appearing almost impervious to provocation but, with Ellen White and Jill Scott retiring, they’ve lost key members of the experienced “old guard” who were so good at managing the players alongside them.

That said the “old guard” knew all about playing for England teams who were not always expected to be on the top but now it’s different; high expectations dictate that the Lionesses are under pressure to both win and perform well and find themselves under increased media scrutiny.

System wise I like England’s back three but, with Colombia possessing the excellent 18-year-old Linda Caicedo down the left, the right wing back, Lucy Bronze will need to be mindful of not leaving too much space behind her.

With Keira Walsh marked out of the game by Nigeria and possibly not 100 per cent fit, two central midfield pivots could offer Wiegman’s side greater control and balance against opponents benefiting from their country’s switch to a professional women’s league.

Chloe Kelly could come into the Lionesses’ side to help provide sharpness up front. Photograph: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

Whatever the system, I think it’s vital that Chloe Kelly comes into the starting XI. Up against Caicedo and the similarly impressive Mayra Ramírez and friends, England need to move the ball faster and could do with Kelly’s directness and willingness to play early balls into the box.

For all their talent and commitment Abadía’s class of 2023 can be a little erratic at times and seem addicted to sometimes self destructive risk taking. That’s why I predict that they will take at least one too many high stakes gambles against England and bow out. But only after extra time …

Prediction England 2 Colombia 0 (aet)